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Electoral Reform for the House of Representatives

By Peter Crayson

Abstract

The problem that this paper addresses is that there is often a very significant disparity between the will of the people, as expressed in their two-candidate preferred votes, and the number of seats won by each party in the House of Representatives. The disparity can be so pronounced that a party with a minority of votes can quite easily end up winning a large majority of seats. Thus, although one's local member may be a reflection of the will of the people in the electoral division, the overall composition of the House, and thus the choice of the party of government, is clearly not a reflection of the will of the people. Majority representation, and thus Government, is won not so much by the vote of the people but by accident of the electoral boundaries which, in a sense, makes voting quite redundant. At the last federal election, the ALP obtained 50.52% of the national total of two-candidate preferred votes but only obtained 45.27% of the seats, whereas the Coalition obtained 48.31% of the national total of two-candidate preferred votes but obtained 54.05% of the seats. Though I have yet to conduct further research, I suspect that this disparity is typical, even to such an extent that the democratic and representative nature of our system could be seriously questioned, not to mention the oft-heard claim of governments to a "mandate".

Of the changes I propose changes to the House of Representatives electoral system, the key feature is:

Other features of the system are: The system involves a mixture of electorate seats and national party list seats, and also enables parties which may have obtained a significant national total of primary votes but which obtained no electorate seats to procure some representation in the House of Representatives. This proposal also has some significant and positive ramifications pertaining to the nature of, and for the case in favour of, a republic. At the last federal election, had my system been in place, the ALP, with 50.52% of the national total of two-candidate preferred votes would have obtained 50.72% of the seats, whereas the Coalition, with 48.31% of the national total of two-candidate preferred votes would have obtained 46.38% of the seats (see the spreadsheet entitled "Results: Lib and NP in coalition, 100 electorate MPs").

My Spreadsheets

These spreadsheets illustrate the results that would have been obtained at each election of the House of Representatives from 1983 to 1988, and also look at differences in results with various parameters (number of electoral divisions, maximum supplementary seats, threshold percentage for top-up seats and ceiling for top-up seats) at different settings. These spreadsheets are aggregated into two Microsoft Excel worksheets, which you can download (they are zipped); if this doesn't work for you, e-mail me and I'll gladly send them to you. Much of the following text refers to information on the spreadsheets, and I have copied here the spreadsheets pertaining to election of the House of Representatives from 1983 to 1988:

Method of Voting

The new electoral system can function using a method of voting which is identical to the current system of voting. What changes here is not the method of voting, but the method of counting the votes.

Changes to the Composition of the House of Representatives

Changes to the composition of the House of Representatives would bear some similarity to the changes which have occurred to the composition of the New Zealand House of Representatives under its MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) system, but despite this similarity, there are a number of important differences. (The New Zealand House of Representatives used to include only M.P.s elected from single member electorates. It now includes M.P.s elected from single member electorates plus M.P.s elected from a national party list.)

Two sets of candidates would exist: electorate candidates (standing for election as electorate M.P.s in single-member electorates and elected by preferential voting which may be compulsory or optional) and party list candidates (standing for election as list M.P.s - parties would register a single national list with the Electoral Commission in the same way that they register reference distributions for the Senate). It is up to each party to decide whom it includes on the national list; however, I would suggest that the logical choice would be for the party leader to take the number 1 position with ministers/shadow ministers/portfolio spokespersons taking, in order of precedence, subsequent positions, followed by such number of other party members as may be deemed appropriate. A candidate could stand as an electorate candidate only, as a list candidate only, or both, but if a candidate standing as both an electorate candidate and as a list candidate is elected as an electorate M.P., that person's name would be struck from the party list.

List M.P.s

There are two categories of list M.P.s:
  1. Supplementary list M.P.s. A fixed maximum number of these M.P.s, say, 20, are elected from the party list in proportion to the national total of primary votes. This firstly ensures that top 5 or so positions on party lists of the major parties are "safe seats". This enables party leaders to concentrate on the national campaign during elections and to concentrate on national issues during their term of office without having to devote any of their valuable time and attention to a local electorate. For the same reason, electorate M.P.s, being less likely to hold ministerial office, would be in a better position to devote more time and attention to their local electorate. Secondly, this enables parties which may have obtained a significant nationwide primary vote, but which - due to the nature of the preferential system - have not obtained any electorate seats (such as the Australian Democrats) to obtain some representation in the House of Representatives.
  2. Top-up list M.P.s. Even with the allocation of supplementary list M.P.s, there may still be (and in fact probably still will be) a significant disparity between the percentage of all seats held by each party and the percentage of the national total of two-candidate preferred votes obtained by that party. To correct this disparity, top-up seats are allocated (subject to a predetermined minimum threshold of votes being required for entitlement to any top-up list seats and a maximum ceiling on the total number of top-up seats) to each party in such a manner that the percentage of seats obtained by each party will very nearly be equal to the percentage of the national total of two-candidate preferred votes obtained by the party, but even more importantly, the party with a majority of the national total of two-candidate preferred votes will in all cases obtain a majority of seats.

Predetermined Values

The following predetermined values should be entered into the spreadsheet:
  1. The number of local electorates (i.e., electoral divisions). I suggest that this be reduced from 148 to about 100, so that that total of electorate M.P.s and list M.P.s works out at around 148.
  2. The maximum number of supplementary list seats. I suggest that this be 20. The total number actually allocated will probably be a little less than 30 as a seats are allocated according to the number of quotas obtained by each party, and remaining partial quotas are discarded (i.e., not distributed). (However, in order to fully allocate quotas amongst the parties, it is possible that Senate-style pre-election registrations of preference lists could be used to do this; in this case, the maximum number of supplementary list seats would always be allocated.) The quota is determined in the same way as the quota for a Senate seat; i.e, (100/(20+1))% + 1 vote.
  3. The threshold for top-up list seats. This is the lowest percentage of two-candidate preferred votes required to be eligible for allocation of a top-up list seat. I suggest that this be 5%.
  4. The ceiling for top-up list seats. I suggest that this be 30. This is the maximum number of top-up list seats which can be allocated, excluding those which are used for "majority correction", where the party with the majority percentage of two-candidate preferred votes has its numbers boosted, if necessary, if it has not won at least that percentage of seats. Top-up seats allocated for majority correction are unlimited in number, but in practice the number would be small, and quite possibly zero. The greater the disparity between the national percentage of two-candidate preferred votes and the percentage of electorate seats for each party, the greater the number of top-up list seats that will be required to rectify the disparity.

Counting Votes and Allocating Seats

Votes would be counted exactly as they are counted under the current system, and primary votes and two-candidate preferred votes would be entered onto the spreadsheet. Nothing further needs to be done - the final results are generated automatically by the spreadsheet. It would take some space on these pages to describe the mathematics of the process, though the mathematics is nothing more complicated than high school level. You may easily examine the spreadsheets (including the equations in the cells) and experiment with different figures to see how it works.

Alternative Method of Voting

The vote for a local electorate M.P. and the vote for a party/P.M. could be separate, as it is in New Zealand. This way, the vote for a local electorate M.P. would be conducted in exactly the same way as at present, whilst a separate vote for a party list would also be conducted. To do this, there would be a separate party ballot paper containing squares to be marked preferentially in exactly the same way as the ballot paper used to elect a local electorate M.P. These ballots would then be counted, firstly counting the primary votes, then allocating preferences in the same way as is done for each electoral division, as though a single winner were to be determined. The result of this count would give a two-party preferred vote, and this vote would be used in the allocation of top-up seats. Though more democratic in that it allows the voter to indicate separate choices - rather than having to decide to use a single vote either for the local candidate or for the party of preference - it is a little more complicated for the voter, and may on this basis be less likely to appeal to politicians.

This is what the New Zealand House of Representatives ballot paper looked like at the 1996 general election:

Under my system, the ballot paper would have the following differences from that above:

Differences in Focus

Assuming that party leaders are at the top of their party lists, for the first time ever, the entire nation will have the opportunity to vote, in a sense, directly for a Prime Minister and for the party of government. The claim to a mandate will thus have far more legitimacy.

Constitutional Implications - The Nexus

Section 24 of the Consitution requires that: "the number of such members [of the House of Representatives] shall be, as nearly as practicable, twice the number of senators." The effect of this condition is most apparent at a joint sitting - it prevents a Government from legislating to decrease the number of senators and increasing the number of M.H.R.s so that the votes of the M.H.R.s would swamp the votes of the Senators.

This would have to be amended, as final numbers of M.H.R.s in my system are always indefinite before an election. In its place, I recommend that minimum numbers be specified for the senators and M.H.R.s. Thus, I would make the following amendments to s24:

Original extract from s24:
... the number of such members shall be, as nearly as practicable, twice the number of senators.

Amended extract from s24:
... the number of such members shall be , as nearly as practicable, at least one and a half times the number of senators.

Currently, in a joint sitting with numbers at 2:1 of M.H.R.s:Senators, for each Senator's vote there are two M.H.R. votes. Under my system, the greater the number of M.H.R.s, the more M.H.R. votes there would be for each Senator's vote. This then might be seen as an incentive for a Government to expand the size of the House of Representatives in order to gain a majority in a joint sitting. To eliminate this incentive, one of two simple solutions could be employed: where the number of M.H.R.s is more than twice the number of Senators, at any vote in a joint sitting, the M.H.R.s shall vote as a block, and their votes counted, and the Senators shall vote as a block, and their votes counted. The votes of the M.H.R.s for and against shall then be multiplied by:

(2 x number of Senators) / (number of M.H.R.s)

and the votes of the two blocks would then be added together. This would effectively limit the voting power of the M.H.R. block to no more than twice that of the Senator block.

Constitutional Implications - The Composition of the House of Representatives

S24 provides that:
24. The House of Representatives shall be composed of members directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth, and the number of such members shall be, as nearly as practicable, twice the number of senators.

The number of members chosen in the several States shall be in proportion to the respective number of their people, and shall, until the Parliament otherwise provides, be determined, wherever necessary, in the following manner:-

But notwithstanding anything in this section, five members at least shall be chosen in each Original State.

To enable my electoral system to take effect, this would have to be amended along the following lines (c.f. Constitution of Malta):

24. The House of Representatives shall be composed of members directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth, and the number of such members shall be, as nearly as practicable, at least one and a half times twice the number of senators.

The Members shall be chosen from electoral divisions in the several States such that the number of members chosen in the several States shall be in proportion to the respective number of their people, and shall, until the Parliament otherwise provides, be determined, wherever necessary, in the following manner:-

But notwithstanding anything in this section, five members at least shall be chosen from electoral divisions in each Original State.

In addition to the members chosen from electoral divisions, the Parliament shall provide for members to be chosen on a national basis from party lists which lists shall have registered with the competent authority prior to an election, such that:-

References in the section to a party shall apply equally to a coalition of parties for which a single party list has been registered with the competent authority.

Implications for Debate in the House of Representatives

As majorities expressed by the vote of the people have historically been relatively small majorities, and assuming that this continues to be the trend, numbers in the House of Representatives would be much more finely balanced under my electoral system. Under the current system, a government whose numbers have been artificially inflated as a result of distortions inherent in the electoral system would be tempted to use these numbers to stifle debate, to push through legislation and to treat the House as a rubber stamp. With numbers more finely balanced under my electoral system, a Government would be less inclined to be so dismissive and contemptuous of the House of Representatives.

Implications for Joint Sittings

With smaller majorities in the House of Representatives under my electoral system, the votes in a joint sitting would also be much more finely balanced. Under the current system, a government whose numbers have been artificially inflated as a result of distortions inherent in the electoral system might also end up with a maority in a joint sitting - this would defeat the purpose of a joint sitting, where it is expected that numbers will be more finely balanced. Under my system, the numbers will be more finely balanced, and it is quite likely that no party will have an absolute majority. A Government will thus be far less inclined to use the mechanism of a joint sitting to push through legislation which might otherwise be rejected by the Parliament.

The assumption here, of course, is that the current system of proportional representation employed for the Senate will be retained. To digress momentarily from the current topic of discussion, this is something which can by no means be taken for granted, unless the current system were constitutionally entrenched.

Implications for the Republic

There are two major aspects of this reform which have implications for the republic. Firstly, the implications for joint sittings also affect the republic. If the President is to be chosed by a 2/3 vote of a joint sitting, it is conceivable that a government under the current system may have numbers which are so grossly inflated as a result of distortions inherent in the electoral system that it will have a sufficient number of votes to choose a President without the support of the Opposition, which could lead to an undesirable politicisation of the office. However, under my electoral system, the only way a government could obtain more than 2/3 of the seats is by it having received more than 2/3 of the vote of the people. This is quite inconceivable, and as such, a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting is quite inconceivable.

Such an artificially inflated majority would be more open to abuse in the result that a Prime Minister has dismissed a President and is seeking ratification thereof in the House of Representatives. Under my system, Governments are more likely to be elected with smaller majorities, and with a smaller majority, a Prime Minister would be much less inclined to seek dismissal of a President.

Secondly, with a far more effectual vote for the House of Representatives and effectively a direct vote for a Prime Minister, the desire to have a similarly direct role in the selection of the President would lose much of its appeal. "Direct election" republicans might be satisfied that in choosing a Prime Minister more or less directly, the need to have a second leader directly elected is less pressing. Parliamentary elections, though already having become "presidential" to a large extent, will be so more in respect of the results (i.e., the popular choice would always win) rather than just campaign style. For this reason, selection by Parliament of the President would make more sense in so far as there would now be two effectively directly elected leaders who could come into conflict.

A Note About My Spreadsheets

You'll notice a very tiny discrepancy in the total of TCP party votes and the total of primary party votes in my 1998 House of Representatives spreadsheet - 18 votes! This is due to a data entry error I've made - if you can find where the error is, good luck to you!


Last updated 13 March 1999.


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